The Damascene Mirror by Jamie Kirkpatrick


A long time ago—almost forty years now—I bought an old Damascene mirror. I found it in an antique shop in Amman, Jordan (that’s a story for another time) but it had originally come from Damascus…or so I was told. I don’t remember how much I paid for it—couldn’t have been much as I didn’t have much disposable income back then—but it was certainly old, probably late 19th or early 20th Century, the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the time of Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt. Not all that long ago really, but old enough for me.

The mirror itself is small but it is embedded in a wooden frame (olive maybe?) surrounded by an intricate inlay of mosaic patterns of mother-of-pearl. It isn’t really all that functional anymore—the small piece of reflective glass is chipped and scratched; I should replace it—but it’s still a graceful old thing from another time and place. I wish it could speak: whose face did it first reflect? Whose home did it grace? Whose hands made it? How did it get from Damascus to Amman? Who timbered the wood and where did all that iridescent nacre originally come from? Old things have all these stories to tell; too bad we can’t speak their language!

It’s just simple science, right? After all, when a ray of light—a stream of photons—hits a smooth, reflective surface, the angle of incidence is always equal to the angle of reflection. We look into a mirror and we accurately see ourselves in real time. But mirrors also capture and collect images and auras from the past. They have a rich and wondrous history. All too often, we overlook their provenance or just take them for granted or (maybe even worse) we turn them into bland utilitarian objects to serve a limited human purpose. But not this old mirror of mine: it reminds of a dear friend and mentor who has since passed away; of a magical dinner party with a king and a queen and a crown prince and a princess; of one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities on earth, a place once known as the City of Jasmine that is now war-torn and slowly bleeding to death; of a time in my life where everything lay ahead of me and I didn’t know the meaning of regret. All that in a little Damascene mirror; the reflections of my life.

Sorry; I think I must be under the spell of the last days of August. Summer is winding down like an old grandfather clock and while there will still be plenty of sunshine and warm weather for the next couple of months, we know what’s coming. This last week of August always catches us by surprise. Forget January; September is when the year really starts: we learned that in school. It’s a quieter, more reflective time of year—maybe that’s why I’m looking into my Damascene mirror again.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is




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